This morning, as I drove into work, I happened to be listening to BBC 5 Live. As ever Nicky Campbell was leading a phone in designed to make its participants unreasonably angry about some trivial issue to fill an hour of radio air time. Today's subject just happened to be concerned with "celebrity culture": a lack of positive female role models is seen, by the Brownies at least, to be damaging to young girls, who increasingly seem to want to be famous purely for its own sake, not for any real achievements or talents.
Well,, this got me to thinking about the nature of fame and celebrity. It struck me that there are four basic levels of "famous", shown in the diagram below:
At the top level are the Achievers: people who do important and useful things in society and are famous, almost as a by-product. If they were not famous, their function would be no different. This includes people like the Queen, or President Obama, or even academics like Brian Cox or Mary Beard. In the latter two cases, or of someone like Marcus du Sautoy, who has a remit to increase public understanding of their subject, however, they can also fall into the second category, which is:
The Laudate. These are people who are famous for having some talent or skill which exists in a public space. They are the people like the actors and the musicians, inter alia, whose work is designed to be performed to and seen by the public, and whose fame is a function of that exposure and talent. Here, I think of the likes of Yo Yo Ma, Dame Judi Dench, Martin Clunes, or David Bowie. This category also includes top-level sportspeople doing the thing they are famous for.
In fact, these first two categories are very much intertwined. Many who are good at what they do and reach a level of excellence will, as a result, gain some kind of public recognition and may be admired or revered for what they do. But at this point, there opens a divide, and the lowest two levels possibly less admirable
At the third level sit the Nonebrities. These are the people describe as, "famous for being famous", like contestants on particular TV shows. So, I'm looking at you, Chantelle Houghton, famous for appearing on Big Brother (and then only because she was vaguely pretty and looked a bit like Paris Hilton, another nonebrity) and Kim Kardashian, who does God alone knows what. It also includes people who gain brief exposure from appearances on shows like The Jeremy Kyle Show.
This leads us to the bottom category: the dangleberry. These people don't even reach the heights of the category above. They gain exposure merely by association, like the relatives of those who appear on the Jeremy Kyle Show, or the retinue of a nonebrity.
These bottom two categories are the ones that cause the most public consternation. People who are famous for these reasons tend to be media constructs. Avatars who can be quickly created and destroyed to satisfy the whims of a media and a public who are equally capricious.
The thing is, some would have us believe that the cult of celebrity is all new. But the gossip rags were far more virulent in the years leading up to (and even during) World War II. It's not even as if a famous footballer marrying a pop star is all that novel. Ask your grandparents who Billy Wright was, and how he married one of the Beverly Sisters. OR, less that a generation after, look at the model of the modern pro footballer, George Best. The big difference today, it appears is that the balance between our high- low- and middle- brow cultures has become hideously skewed, possibly as a result of making too much of the culture market-led. The push to mass market to follow the money has caused the culture and its values to become focused on the route of most apparent ease. It's an illusion of course, but one which is confusing enough to bedazzle those whose accuity to such things is not yet fully developed, which is where we came in. For young girls especially, it seems as if the predominant role models the media push toward them fall into the latter two groups, with fewer from the top two. This is unsurprising, since hard work and talent aren't necessarily glamorous and won't shift magazine covers, but it does have a more pervasive, and unfortunately malignant, longer term effect. The solutions are not simple and require a major cultural shift form the public, the publishers and the wider media, including the political culture, though it is unlikely to happen any time soon.